Digitalisation and Low-Skilled Work

Hartmut Hirsch-Kreinsen (2016): In 2013 the low-skilled accounted for 23 percent of the German workforce. Low-skilled work, generally done by workers with few qualifications, is thus clearly an integral component of modern industrial production. In the current “Industry 4.0” discussions about mechanising, automating and digitalising the entire world of work, low-skilled work and repetitive tasks are treated as increasingly anachronistic relics from the early industrial era. It is suggested that within just a few years there will be no industrial jobs left for the unskilled and semi-skilled, leaving many workers facing social exclusion and loss of status.

In fact, talk of a general erosion of low-skilled work is premature. Over the past fifteen years this type of work has actually stabilised, after industrial rationalisation processes broadly reached their limits. Low-skilled work is receptive to different development dynamics, and by no means obsolete in a modern and digitalised economy. Even if new technologies may accelerate and in some cases further automate processes, there is one aspect where they cannot substitute the human: experience.

This study, prepared for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung by Prof. Hartmut Hirsch-Kreinsen, shows how low-skilled work remains highly relevant. Even in a context of advancing digitalisation, its continuing significance for employers should not be under- estimated, nor should it be ignored in employment policy. The extent to which Industry 4.0 will change the overall situation of companies employing large proportions of low- skilled workers remains unclear.

Ultimately, politics, employers and trade unions will have to choose which path to take. Whichever this is, the modernisation goal of “good low-skilled work” must be pursued. In a debate often dominated by technical aspects, this study supplies a timely reminder that there are also traditional and less technology-intensive branches and workplaces.


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